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Andy Warhol - A Portrait of America

Dicembre 2017
Tutti conoscono le opere e i colori di questo geniale artista, mentre le sue origini e la sua biografia non sono altrettanto note: per capire la creatività di Warhol bisogna inquadrarlo nel contesto di un’epoca e di una cultura ancora parecchio convenzionali, ma in fermento.

di Alex Phillips

File audio:

The Mao installation at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg
The Mao installation at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg
Patrick Moore
Patrick Moore

Speaker: Molly Malcolm (Standard American accent)

Andy Warhol’s art is fun and fascinating. Paintings, sculptures, screen prints and films portray household products or 1960s icons in repetition or in slow motion, larger than life or splashed in bright colours. Campbell’s soup cans, a singular banana, huge Brillo boxes, Marilyn Monroe...
Warhol grew up in Depression-era Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania but by the mid-1960s his New York City studio ‘The Factory’ was the place to be for socialites and celebrities, desperate to become subjects for his pop art. Yet while this may suggest that his interests were superficial, as Patrick Moore, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, says, both in theme and intention Warhol’s work was radically different from anything that came before it.
As disarming as the publicity images that inspired it, from his portfolio emerges a portrait of America that is both glamorous and gruesome, that reveals and reproduces the seductive power of the media with precision and prescience. Speak Up met with Patrick Moore. He began by putting Warhol into context: 

Patrick Moore (Standard American accent)

He came from this poor family of immigrants who worked in the steel industry in Pittsburgh. And it was a very rough place. And he dreamed of being an artist. So, they were a very religious family, they were Byzantine Catholic and when he was a little boy he was a sickly little delicate boy and his mother taught him how to draw. It was one of the few things that they could do. There was no television, obviously, there was nothing. And she taught him how to draw angels.


Warhol was sent to study commercial art at what is now Carnegie Mellon University. After that he moved to Manhattan and became a successful commercial illustrator. But he had other ambitions, says Moore:

Patrick Moore

He was working for the New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar illustrating women’s fashions, drawing handbags and shoes ... and he was never ashamed of that, he loved doing it. He was wildly successful but he was looking around at all of these magazines and advertisements and he thought that they were beautiful, so he started lifting images from these commercial advertisements and said, ‘I’m going to make fine art from these, I’m going to make paintings from these images that I see in commercial advertising’.


Fine art at the time was a serious business that looked down its nose at the world of commerce - although some of its artists became very rich! The emphasis placed on the artisanal and authentic was undermined by Warhol’s work, which appeared to revel in capitalist American culture, and even adopted its techniques of mass production.

Patrick Moore

He thought that they represented American life: they were a portrait of America. So everything from Campbell’s soup cans to Coca-Cola. He was lifting images of movie stars from his childhood. When he was a little boy, he would send away and get images of Shirley Temple and the movie stars of the day, so he loved Hollywood and glamour. The idea that somebody would take an image like that and put it on a canvas and show it in a gallery, it was like an earthquake. He wanted to be able to produce work quickly and to make more work and that has become a very prevalent idea for contemporary artists. So he used the silk screen. The silk screen was a commercial process and he used it for fine art, but it also allowed him to make paintings much more quickly using an assistant. But Warhol was really one of the first people who thought about creating a studio that worked in that way.

FAMOUS FOR 15 minutes

The Factory became a hub for celebrities and ‘wannabes’: Lou Reed and his band The Velvet Underground, the Catalan surrealist Salvador Dalí and the model and actress Edie Sedgwick were all closely associated with the enigmatic Warhol. Many of them contributed to and featured in his work. Yet, as Moore says, Warhol’s relationship with his subject matter was not all adulation.

Patrick Moore

There is a darkness as well that comes very quickly in Warhol’s work because very soon he starts to paint movie stars who are tragic, he starts to paint soup cans that are destroyed, not pristine, he starts to take images from newspapers that are of car crashes. But if you think of this, he’s also very much aware of art history, and if you think of images of ‘still lifes’, for example. Still lifes are often cut flowers, fruit that is decaying and that’s what these stars are. Elvis Presley, Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, these are people who are famous, the most famous people in the world for a second, but they are going to fade, they are going to pass. Their glamour and their beauty is going to die.


Warhol lived in celebratory yet troubled times, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968 and, that same year, a near-fatal attempt on his own life by the radical feminist Valerie Solanas. Horrific images of car crashes, for example, began to appear in his artwork. Moore suggests that Warhol reproduced them as a means to study their grim allure:

Patrick Moore

Well, I think there is beauty in those images, but more than beauty there’s power. Because if we’re driving down the road and we see an accident by the side of the road we may not want to look as we drive past that car crash but it’s very difficult to avert your eyes, you’re drawn to it. So if Madonna or Lady Gaga were over there in that corner of the room, my eyes would be drawn over there. So, in the same way that celebrity and fame has power, so does tragedy. So I think that’s exactly what Warhol was looking at: why do these images have so much power?


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Brillo boxes. Confezioni di spugnette Brillo. Si tratta di una marca di spugnette per lavare i piatti, brevettate nel 1913 e molto popolari negli Stati Uniti. A detta dell’impresa, il nome deriva dalla parola latina che sta per “brillante”. Warhol creò decine di queste composizioni fra il 1963 e il 1964. Nel 2010 una di queste scatole è stata comprata all’asta per tre
milioni di dollari.

Depression-era. All’epoca della Depressione. L’autrice si riferisce alla Grande Depressione che afflisse gli Stati Uniti e gran parte del mondo dopo il crollo della borsa di Wall Street nel 1929. Si tratta in definitiva di una grave, lunga e profonda crisi economica.

Pop art and fine art. Pop sta per popular e si riferisce a qualsiasi genere artistico-culturale rivolto alla massa (includendo anche il concetto di “arte prodotta in serie”). Si usa in contrapposizione ad altre forme artistiche considerate elitarie, come alcune espressioni delle fine arts (le belle arti). In maniera ancora più simbolica – e classista –, si usa anche la contrapposizione fra l’alta cultura  – high brow, letteralmente “sopracciglio alto”, per la mimica
facciale che esprime superiorità da parte di chi la genera o ne fruisce – e la bassa cultura – low brow (di “sopracciglio basso”, dando a intendere che è destinata alla gente meno colta).

Wannabes. I “vorrei ma non posso”. Wannabe non è altro che un’abbreviazione di want to be, quelli che aspirano inutilmente a essere una persona importante o famosa.